Schools focus on basic skills to improve the chances of the poorest children

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At her primary school in Ndiebel, in western Senegal, Marietou Diagne has seen a marked improvement in her young students’ mastery of the basics of reading since she adopted a new teaching approach two years ago.

Children in the first three years now study in Wolof, their mother tongue, before switching to French, the country’s main language of instruction. On the basis of these stronger foundations, the aim is to improve children’s learning and progression through the education system.

“I have seen real progress,” says Diagne. “Children are much more comfortable and understand the essentials very quickly. They bring home books and their families can help them read. I’ve even had parents who said the younger ones were better at reading than their older siblings.

Primary school teacher Marietou Diagne

It is part of Lecture Pour Tous, a program aimed at improving basic reading skills in six regions of Senegal. It deploys a structured approach to learning that uses specially developed materials, regular assessments and training and coaching for teachers.

The underlying principle is that children learn best initially in the dominant language of their family, community and playground, rather than in the official language of their country, because that is what they know. the best. Initial evaluations suggest a significant improvement in reading skills for children enrolled in the three local languages ​​in which the program operates, compared to those starting their first years in French.

The program highlights the potential for innovative approaches to improve the very low levels of basic literacy and numeracy learning of hundreds of millions of children in low- and middle-income countries. Poor understanding leads to high dropout rates and limits the ability of those who remain to reach their full potential. It also illustrates the persistent barriers to improvement, which only intensified during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A teacher, holding a book, with his students inside the classroom

The Fatick school uses learning materials in the local language Serere) developed within the framework of Lecture Pour Tous

Reading For All is atypical in several respects. Although it operates in a country with historic ties to France which are reflected in its school system and choice of official languages, it is funded by the United States Agency for International Development, a federal agency that administers aid foreign. USAID stresses that there is no attempt to undermine the transition to teaching in French in later school years.

The program works closely with the government, enjoys strong long-term support, and has been sustained and expanded for several years with careful review and monitoring of results. This contrasts with many fragmented, poorly monitored, uncoordinated and unsustainable educational projects.

Ben Piper, senior director for education in Africa at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, says he was able to identify less than a dozen similar examples in Asia and Africa for his research on ” large-scale programs with a significant impact on learning ”. In contrast, there are many small-scale pilot projects with insufficient evidence, providing little guidance as to whether or how they could be scaled up nationally, let alone replicated in other countries.

Students practice reading in their local language

Students practice reading in their local language

One of the successes is Pratham, a nonprofit organization active in India that has long championed an approach to improving learning – ‘teach at the right level’ – currently being explored elsewhere. It deploys simple, rapid and regular assessments of each child’s progress, coupled with structured instructional techniques to help teachers ensure children are fluent in reading.

“Once you know how to read with some understanding, you can propel yourself,” says Rukmini Banerji, Managing Director of Pratham. “You can’t do math, science or even follow [furniture assembly] instructions unless you can read.

She stresses the need for educators to “put aside the safety cover of a progression and curriculum based on age and grade level” in schools and instead focus on understanding the issues. basic fundamental skills for every child.

These techniques are receiving new attention as evidence of setbacks to learning caused by the coronavirus-related classroom closures, which has set children back in rich and poor countries alike in recent months. .

Banerji says Covid-19 prompted Pratham to step up efforts. Rather than just ‘connecting’ with out-of-school children, he tries to help them focus on formal learning. She sees a growing role for closer bonds between teachers and their families, using parents to help support learning outside of school.

Others point out that for many of the world’s poorest children, much broader measures will be needed, both to progress towards the UN goals of quality education for all and to recover from poverty. pandemic. These include steps well beyond the classroom to address the underlying causes and consequences of poverty and discrimination.

The charity Save the Children published a report in September entitled Build Forward Better, in which it stressed the importance of well-being and physical safety; target the children most discriminated against, including those who do not go to school; more funding; more decentralization of decision-making; and more regularly data collected and shared to improve decisions.

Raby Gueye is the head of Teach for Senegal, an education development organization that this year recruited its first cohort of talented young professionals to work in schools across the country, says broader support to hire, train and supporting high quality teachers is essential to improve outcomes. “We just don’t have a lot of time or resources dedicated to training,” she says.

She praises the shift with Lecture pour Tous towards teaching basic literacy and numeracy in local languages, but also stresses the importance of social and emotional skills and broader structural concerns. “We have kept a colonial system and we have never asked why it is in place. There must be a conversation about the purpose of education.


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